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Culture

The Accidental Room

99% Invisible

"What’s your favorite podcast?” If only more people would ask me that! I get a small rush answering, "99% Invisible, of course.”

In their own words: "99% Invisible is about all the thought that goes into the things we don’t think about — the unnoticed architecture and design that shape our world." It’s one of the most popular podcasts today with well over 300 episodes. The founder and host, Roman Mars, is a winsome, curious guy with a sweet energy. He’s the kind of guy I want to have a smoothie with.

To get you hooked, just listen to one of my favorites: "The Accidental Room". You’ll marvel at a small group of artists in Rhode Island who found a sliver of dead space in a mall and created a secret apartment. They occupied it under the noses of security and customers for nearly four years!

Token Ethicists and Non-existent Moral Communities

L. M. Sacasas

There are few more pressing tasks for contemporary Christians than that of coming to grips with the technological world that is rapidly developing and shifting around us, and which is becoming our primary social environment.

To that end, I have found the work of Michael Sacasas peculiarly perceptive and helpful. I highly recommend that people follow his blog, The Frailest Thing.

In "Token Ethicists and Non-existent Moral Communities", Sacasas explores the difficulty of addressing technology appropriately, as we lack "a relevant moral community with either the prerequisite coherence or authority to effectively grapple with the problems we face."

Linking Prayers and Purchases, Art and Labor

Alan Jacobs

What does it mean to live an integrated life? In this fascinating article, Alan Jacobs turns to the undeniably strange Victorian sage John Ruskin for an answer.

"The great quest of Ruskin’s life," Jacobs writes, "was to amalgamate disparate experience: not to allow the various aspects of life to sit separate with one another, as though our prayers have nothing to do with our purchases, or our arts from our labor, but rather to bring all of them together into a healthy, vibrant symbiosis."

One of Ruskin's key insights later in life was “God has lent us the earth for our life; it is a great entail." Because of this, we mustn't compartmentalize our life as if what we make and do will have no effect on those who come after us. Whether or not we intend it, we will pass down parts of the lives we've lived.

The Religion of Workism

Derek Thompson

Over at The Atlantic, Derek Thompson explores the new religion of "workism" so prevalent among millennials (who are rapidly burning out, as we saw a few issues ago). Why has work taken on the trappings of religion? Thompson notes the way in which "the American conception of work has shifted from jobs to careers to callings—from necessity to status to meaning."

Today, one's work can become one's soulmate, invested with nearly religious meaning. However, as Thompson notes, one benefit of traditional religions is that "God-fearing worshippers put their faith in an intangible and unfalsifiable force of goodness. But work is tangible, and success is often falsified. To make either the centerpiece of one’s life is to place one’s esteem in the mercurial hands of the market. To be a workist is to worship a god with firing power."

Read "Workism Is Making Americans Miserable" at The Atlantic. For a deeply Christian treatment of faith, work, and vocation, check out Tim Keller's Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God's Work.

The Vice of Ease

Jen Pollock Michel

All over the developed world, people seem to be developing fatigue when it comes to basic bodily living.

Jen Pollock Michel explores these trends and asks an important question: "As we continue to reduce the physical burden it takes to move through the world, and the efforts of our lives are often only as effortful as staring our smartphones in the face (why bother with a home button?), how will we galvanize the real will for love of God and neighbor?"

Sex in the Post-Modern Story

Sarah Williams

In these three careful and incisive lectures, historian Sarah Williams explains the way in which private moral decisions in the bedroom have profound public implications. She does so through both personal narrative and historical argument.

Williams opens with the story of Cerian, her and her husband's second child, who was diagnosed in utero with thanatophoric dysplasia, a lethal skeletal deformity that would surely result in death shortly after birth. The pressure they experienced to abort Cerian provokes reflection about our culture's primary lens for envisioning a flourishing life: the capacity for unlimited choice.

Framed this way, the second and third lectures track the philosophical and historical foundations for our common understandings of gender and sexuality, particularly the way in which this understanding is shaped by a free market economy. In our culture, Williams says, "persons and personal identities (including sexual identities) are, above all, products of the individual’s ability to marshal their resources toward a desired and chosen end. This ability to choose is believed to maximize human freedom." But does it? Listen to "Sex in the Post-Modern Story" (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) on the Corban Talks podcast. To read the story of Cerian, see this article from Plough, an excerpt from Sarah Williams' recent book Perfectly Human: Nine Months with Cerian.

Of Monks and Marie Kondo

Heidi Deddens

If you've been around Netflix this year (or a bookstore in the last four years), you've probably come across Marie Kondo, the infectiously gleeful Japanese tidying guru and mastermind behind The KonMari Method™ of home organization. Along with a host of other new minimalists, Marie Kondo has gained an audience with an unlikely message in our consumerist society: there is joy in owning fewer things.

Living with less has been a facet of some religious traditions for thousands of years, but this article by Heidi Deddens highlights how the ethos of self-help and self-promotion that permeates the new minimalism is a strange innovation that would've confounded minimalists of old, particularly Christian ones.

Read "Minimalism and Monasticism" over at Comment to find out what Marie Kondo and the desert fathers do and don't have in common. You can also read some other engaging articles on the new minimalism in Comment's Winter 2018 issue.

How to Argue

Daryl Davis

Daryl Davis makes his living playing blues piano, but he dreams about one day opening a museum of Klu Klux Klan robes, garments, and memorabilia. He already has around 200 robes, each signifying a former Klan member whom he has convinced to leave the KKK.

It all started at a blues venue during a conversation over a drink with a white music lover. "You know," the man said, "this is the first time I ever sat down and had a drink with a black man?” Davis was taken aback and asked why. “I'm a member of the Ku Klux Klan,” he answered.

“The fact that a Klansman and black person could sit down at the same table and enjoy the same music, that was a seed planted,” says Davis. “I decided to go around the country and sit down with Klan leaders and Klan members to find out: How can you hate me when you don't even know me?”

Pray for Chinese Christians

Lily Kuo

The Chinese government is uneasy about the nation’s growing Christian population. Their latest solution? Install CCTV cameras in Christian churches, crack down on Bible sales, publish a retranslated and annotated Bible that features a “correct understanding” of the text, and shut down churches that will not comply. As Lily Kuo reports for The Guardian, “A statement signed by 500 house church leaders in November says authorities have removed crosses from buildings, forced churches to hang the Chinese flag and sing patriotic songs, and barred minors from attending.”

One of the most notable churches to resist these government restrictions is Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu. Over 100 members of Early Rain were arrested in December. The church’s pastor Wang Yi (pictured above) and his wife Jiang Rong are still in detention and charged with “inciting subversion” against the government. Wang expected this. Before he and his wife were detained, Wang issued a bold public statement:

If I am imprisoned for a long or short period of time, if I can help reduce the authorities’ fear of my faith and of my Savior, I am very joyfully willing to help them in this way. But I know that only when I renounce all the wickedness of this persecution against the church and use peaceful means to disobey, will I truly be able to help the souls of the authorities and law enforcement. I hope God uses me, by means of first losing my personal freedom, to tell those who have deprived me of my personal freedom that there is an authority higher than their authority, and that there is a freedom that they cannot restrain, a freedom that fills the church of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ.

How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation

Anne Helen Petersen

If you’re a millennial (or a friend of parent of one), you will probably feel a sting of recognition while reading Anne Helen Petersen’s description of “errand fatigue”, a seemingly intractable condition that prevents millennials from accomplishing the most basic “high-effort, low-reward tasks” such as taking back library books or buying stamps.

Why are these tasks so hard? Because millennials have been conditioned to believe that their energies should be focused solely on high-effort, high-reward tasks. "[O]ur generation has been trained, tailored, primed, and optimized for the workplace — first in school, then through secondary education — starting as very young children."

Petersen’s article sheds light on the various areas where a narrative of ceaseless optimization has been reinforced for millennials, including parental pressure, the 2008 financial crisis, a comparison-driven social media landscape, and phones that tether millennials to work. You don’t have to agree with Petersen’s solutions to recognize the power of her analysis. Read "How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation" at BuzzFeed News.

3 Great Untruths to Stop Telling Our Kids – and Ourselves

Jonathan Haidt

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt is convinced that three great untruths have been woven into the fabric of American parenting in the last generation: The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker. The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings. The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people.

The result? Kids born in the mid to late 1990s — the generation known as iGen — have been unwittingly infantilized, emotionalized, and tribalized by their parents. Rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide are on the rise. Safe spaces are in high demand on university campuses, which have become hives of continual protest against contrarian ideas and speech perceived as threatening.

Listen to Haidt talk about the three great untruths, their wide ranging effects, and how we might resist them in the following short videos: 3 great untruths to stop telling kids—and ourselves How overparenting backfired on Americans There are two kinds of identity politics. One is good. The other, very bad You can read more in Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff's new book The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.

How to Become Scrooge

B.D. McClay

A few Thanksgivings ago, B.D. McClay found herself watching The Muppet Christmas Carol with family and realized that all along she'd been missing the meaning of Charles Dickens' classic tale. It's not so much the story of a bad man who turns good as it is the story of a busy, indifferent man who learns how to care.

If that's true, A Christmas Carol is just the right story for our manic world. Perhaps people become Scrooges "not because they are stupid but because they can’t help it—that’s what the world is set up to make of them. They will not think of themselves as bad people, merely busy ones." Like Ebenezer Scrooge, we need the gift of perspective – past, present, and future – to make us care.

Read "My Ebenezer" at The Weekly Standard – and then go watch The Muppet Christmas Carol with someone you love.

Where Did All Our Meaning Go?

This Cultural Moment

Freedom, meaning, and community. All humans yearn for these things and need them to survive. Ask around, though, and you’ll probably find that many people are missing the latter two.

In this episode of This Cultural Moment, Mary Sayers and John Mark Comer discuss how individuals in the Western world currently have an overflowing "tank" of freedom coupled with very low levels of meaning and community. Why is this the case? And how can we fill the other tanks?

Listen to "True Individuality is Found in Dying to Self (and Other Things You Don’t Hear on the Street)" and be sure to check out the rest of This Cultural Moment for more keen insights on our time and place.

What is Owed to Amber Wyatt?

Elizabeth Bruenig

Twelve years ago, a 16-year-old cheerleader named Amber Wyatt reported that she was raped during a high school party. Few people believed her. Her hometown turned against her, making her the object of hate, mockery, and exile.

Washington Post reporter Elizabeth Bruenig went to high school with Wyatt (though she never knew her) and the story has lingered on her conscience, “like an article of unfinished business.” This remarkable account offers a personal reckoning years in the making.

It is an important story. Sexual assaults are quickly politicized by either side of the political spectrum these days. This can prevent us from considering the particularities of each case and insulate us from dealing with an important question: What if, "lurking in all the complaints about our putative culture of victimhood, there is something uglier than generalized contempt: a disdain for the weak”? A necessary warning: it’s a graphic and unsettling story. If sexual abuse is a part of your past, please take caution before reading.

What Swedish Weddings Get Right

David Michael

What if we're doing friendship all wrong?

American writer David Michael found himself asking this question when he married a Swede in Sweden. Accustomed to American weddings where family and friends often play a spectator role, Michael was surprised at just how much his Swedish wedding promoted "a public notion of friendship" where friends and loved ones were deeply involved from start to finish, "making sure the walls of [our] household weren’t so high that friendship and community would be excluded from it."

This beautiful essay raises important questions about what our weddings say about what we value and urges us to reconsider some common modern notions of friendship. It also reveals some shocking figures about the price of Swedish weddings...

Transgender Issues and Rapid Cultural Change

Jim Paul

We live in a time of rapid cultural change. Look no further for evidence than our discussions of transgender rights, which have gone from being a minor issue to one of the most defining cultural battlefields of our time. The transgender lobby has made major gains in almost every quarter of society, from law and educational policy to media coverage and celebrity endorsement.

How did this happen so fast? More specifically, how has the transgender lobby been so successful in changing public opinion, while opposing voices have been so profoundly unsuccessful in providing compelling alternative perspectives?

This talk by Jim Paul—director of L’Abri Fellowship in England—addresses these questions. He argues that the transgender conversation exists within a deeper sea of cultural change, only recently “catching a wave” and landing on the shore of public opinion with surprising force. While not primarily concerned with the moral questions surrounding this controversial topic, this talk is an accessible and clear exploration of how such a rapid cultural change took place.

Taking the Long Way

Yuval Levin

Even in our politically divisive times, there is one concept on which left and right agree: the individual person should be able to live a life free from coercion and constraint.

But the devil is in the details. Conservatives want freedom from the government telling them what to do with what belongs to them, while progressives often advocate for freedom from state legislation of morality in the spheres of family, sexuality, and culture. On both ends of the spectrum, personal autonomy is paramount—and ensuring that autonomy is the political endgame.

Yuval Levin, an American constitutional scholar, thinks this is an impoverished idea of liberty: "To liberate us purely to pursue our wants and wishes is to liberate our appetites and passions. But a person in the grip of appetite or passion can’t be our model of the free human being."

The Esther Option

Mike Cosper

What does it look like to be live as a faithful Christian in a divisive cultural climate when constantly confronted by the conflicting value systems of progressivism on the left and populism/nationalism on the right, neither of which square easily with the way of Jesus?

Mike Cosper turns to the Old Testament book of Esther for an answer. In a culture where it's tempting to fight power with power, this story of a devout Jewish woman living in exile in an antagonistic culture and faced with the possible extermination of her people is surprisingly relevant. It serves as a reminder for believers that true faithfulness looks like awakening to our identity as God's people, embracing a vulnerable humility that moves toward our culture's places of need, and renewing the traditions that form us to love God and neighbor.

The Poison We Pick

Andrew Sullivan

More than 2 million Americans are hooked on some kind of opioid, be it heroin, morphine, fentanyl, or a multitude of other related drugs. The past decade has seen a quantum leap in opioid use and related deaths in America, with more lives lost in 2017 than in the entire Vietnam War.

How did this crisis happen so fast? The best answers take the long view. What draws all opioids together is their relationship to the poppy, a flower that has been used as a numbing agent in America since the earliest days of the nation when Thomas Jefferson planted them in his Monticello garden. The poppy has a unique draw on Americans — and its growth mirrors the history of the nation itself.

This brilliant and illuminating article by Andrew Sullivan is essential reading for understanding the landscape of the American opioid epidemic today.